by Soraya Grant
Scams of the Heart welcomes victims of online romance scams based in Nigeria, Ghana, the former U.S.S.R., Malaysia, the United States, Canada, or anywhere else a romance scam may originate. We also welcome those who are unsure if their situation is a real relationship or friendship or if it is a scam, and anyone who is concerned about a family member, housemate, coworker, or friend.
While it is often difficult to tell when someone else is involved with a scammer, there are ten major warning signs to watch out for.
#1: Your friend's internet habits have changed to a noticeable degree.
Increased internet usage is probably the first thing that springs to mind. If your friend was never that interested in spending large amounts of time online before, but is now spending hours logged in, they may be getting sucked in by a scammer, but that is not the only detail to watch out for. Look for changes in the way the person behaves online. If they used to spend hours chatting on Facebook to friends they know offline, but now seem to never have time to answer messages, or if they've always been heavy internet researchers or shoppers, but are now only ever connected to their messenger account, that is also a warning sign. Decreased internet use may also be a red flag for a scam situation. Many scammers snare their victims on a dating site, chat room, health care web site, or Facebook, but immediately want to move the communication to texting and instant messaging. Your friend could appear absent from the internet because he has created a new messenger account and/or taken to spending entire days texting from his phone.
Scammers are present on almost every site that allows communication between new people. Take note any time your friend seems to have become unusually devoted to a certain site, whether that be an explicit, adult oriented site, a clean chat room, a dating web site, or a forum for people suffering from certain disorders. There may be other reasons for their focus on this certain site, but they may also be using to communicate with a scammer.
#2: He or she seems especially happy for no apparent reason.
This is not to suggest that everybody in a good mood is the victim of an online romance scammer, but watch out for sudden, unexplained improvements in the mood of someone who has been lonely, isolated, depressed, or simply bored with their current circumstances, especially if that person has taken up online dating or begun communicating with new people online in any way. The dramatically improved mood could be stemming from the belief that they have met the man or woman of their dreams. In many cases, the dream man or woman will turn out to be a character crafted by a scammer or group of scammers.
#3: The person has gotten uncharacteristically secretive about his or her online friends, phone calls, or texts.
Romance scammers often manipulate their victims into social isolation by pretending to be people who want secrecy in the relationship. One American chat room scammer demanded that "his girlfriend" not tell anyone the two of them were a couple in any form. He insisted that this was because he was a very private person, and because he wanted his mother to be the first person in his life to know about his new love. The women who believed themselves to be his girlfriends were to tell others in the chat room that the two of them were just friends, and to avoid mentioning him at all to anyone they knew offline. Further scammer tactics include insisting that the family, group of friends, or other staff members at work would try to sabotage the relationship out of jealousy, or allowing the victim to tell one person, but keep things a secret from all of the rest of their friends and family. Any of these things can leave the person you care about with an oddly jumpy, secretive attitude about their online or phone activity. If he used to brag about all the women who flirt with him in the chat room he uses in the evenings, but now says 'nobody' when you ask about it, or if she used to forward you pictures of everything from cute guys she met on dating sites to the car she's planning to buy, and suddenly stopped, your friend may be in a secret online "relationship" with a scammer.
#4: He or she suddenly loses one large or several small amounts of money or begins talking or behaving as though he or she is having financial problems.
You may notice that your mom keeps saying "I hope you kids weren't counting on a big inheritance" when you know she's got savings accounts set up for each child. Or maybe your coworker used to love to go shopping and out to drinks every Friday evening, but now claims she "can't afford it." Maybe your friend alludes to "not having much in the bank these days" when you ask her how the apartment hunt is progressing. There are several ways a person can fall into sudden financial difficulty, but falling prey to a scammer is certainly one of them. The money needn't even be completely gone to cause concern. One scam victim had money, but suddenly insisted she couldn't spend it on the project she had told her family and friends about. Many of them later learned she had placed it into what she thought was a 'special first date' account for her and what turned out to be the scammer. She discovered the scam right before she wrote a check for his travel, but many scam victims do not get such a moment of luck.
#5: Your friend has developed an interest in new places.
This is an especially strong warning signal if the place they are suddenly interested in is Nigeria, Ghana, a nation in the former Soviet Union, Malaysia, or any other country that is a hotbed for organized rings of romance scammers. This new interest could stem from the belief that the love of their life is working, visiting family, or doing missionary work there. A romance scam victim may also develop what appears to be a sudden fascination with the state or city the scammer pretends to live in, or in the case of many domestic scammers, actually does live in.
#6: Daily and weekly routines and activities have changed.
Scammers alter their victims' eating habits, sleeping patterns, and other daily activities in order to make them more susceptible to brainwashing. The scammer may be insisting on a late night chat via text every night, leaving your coworker tired, unable to focus, and craving sugary breakfast foods in the morning. Or the scammer might have decided to mess with your brother's body chemistry and test his willingness to do what they ask by pressuring him to give up his morning run in order to chat with them via IM instead. Your roommate may shower at two in the morning because he's been up all night talking to a "girlfriend" or you may notice that his normally spotless room is now musty and cluttered thanks to an overflowing laundry hamper and dirty bedding he forgot to wash because he was chatting online for entire afternoons. Pay special attention to someone who suddenly seems to be going to the bank much more than normal, or needing an excessive amount of shipping supplies. They may have been tricked into sending money, making purchases, or unknowingly reshipping stolen or other illegal materials for a scammer.
#7: The person has begun to pull away or isolate from friends and family members both online and offline.
As the scam progresses, the victim's lack of presence in the lives of others goes beyond the initial excited focus on what they think is their new love. Scammers demand chats at odd hours, give their victims little tests and projects to see if they are compliant, and drill it into them that their family and friends would be jealous or against their relationship until the scammer's voice is the only one the person hears. This may cause the target of the scam to stop confiding in or even checking in with friends and family members, avoiding offline social situations, and even neglecting to post updates on social web pages where family and friends can see them and know they are okay.
#8: Subtle changes in values, tastes, and interests can be seen.
Scammers create characters designed to snare each victim by working to match or compliment the characters' values, tastes, and interests to the specific targets. Your friend will not likely switch their basic values, religious affiliation, or career because of the scammer, as the scammer probably pretended to either have similar views and goals in those areas, or pretended to be someone who suited your friend well in those areas. One scammer studied a victim's chat dialogue and learned that she normally voted Democrat and had volunteered on Democratic campaigns, but had also recently had her heart broken by a Republican man who once enjoyed lighthearted verbal teasing over their political differences. The scammer presented himself as a nicer version of that real man, claiming he was a die hard conservative Republican, but his beloved late wife had been a Democrat. At the same time, scammers will give their victims little tests designed to gauge how willing they are to do what the scammer wants. This often involves prodding the person to change small details about themselves. You might notice your friend suddenly favoring a certain type of food, taking up a new form of exercise, or adding or removing certain items, such as pillows, candles, or end tables, from his home.
#9: The person seems to be wrapped up in a new, and slightly odd research project.
You've never known your cousin to be interested in earning a college degree online before, but now she seems to spend hours researching online schools and advancement options in her career. Or maybe you notice her Pinterest page is full of home planning and decorating ideas, when she lives in a tiny furnished economy apartment that doesn't allow much beyond throws and figurines in the way of changes to the decor. Many scammers will urge their victims in to taking up little projects related to the life they are pretending the two of them are going to live together. This is a mind control tactic that serves three purposes. One, it makes the situation seem even more real to the victim. Two, it keeps the victim focused on the scammer, and cuts into their time for anyone else. Three, it keeps the victim's mind occupied, giving them little to no time to ponder the situation and see the red flags that may be present.
#10: You may notice changes in your friend's clothing style and appearance.
Scam related appearance changes may seem positive on the surface. Your friend might start choosing especially flattering colors when buying new shirts, visit a salon for a special beauty treatment, get new makeup or aftershave, or buy a dress or jacket that is clearly intended for a night out or a special date. In any other situation this would be absolutely harmless, but if the person is enmeshed with a scammer, they might be preparing for a special date or vacation that is never going to happen and fixing themselves up to look their best for a person who does not really exist.
Some of these warning signs may seem repetitive. That is because none of them will occur alone. Watch for a variety of these red flags happening within a span of weeks or several months. Anyone who thinks they see a number of these details in the life of a someone they care about is invited to discuss the situation with us on our yahoo groups board or in our chatroom.